And then there was light!

let there be light

A decision to apply for an order permitting the Wednesbury Council to supply electricity to the town was taken as early as November 1889, yet recorded in the council minutes, Alderman Richard Williams secured a postponement of the application.

notice in paper

Nothing was done until 1898 when the notice (picture above) of intention had to be published in the Wednesbury Herald. The Council then not only approved the bill which had been presented by the new Midland Electric Corporation, but decided to reapply with its own tender to undertake the supply.  “Now there’s a surprise!”

After four years of negotiations (“No doubt very heated ones”) an agreement was finally reached on who would undertake the generation of electricity in the town.

October 1902 was the month when it was finally agreed that the ‘Midland Power Company’ should generate power in Wednesbury, but its distribution should be by Wednesbury Corporation. “Except in the King’s Hill area, where the Company undertook both supply and distribution.”

The Town Council borrowed £170,000, of which £11,000 was for the municipal electricity supply.

However, in 1907 the Corporation once again sought the authority to generate as well as distribute it’s own electricity. The application was opposed by the Midland Power Company as it seemed to them, they would now have to compete with the Corporation if they built their own plant.

The Local Government Board informed the Wednesbury Council that no further loan would be sanctioned unless the Board of Trade consented to withdraw the powers granted to the Midland Electric Corporation.

Wednesbury Council appears to have applied successfully for the powers to be withdrawn, and in 1909 they were enabled to borrow £10,000 to lay down an independent electricity generating plant. Further amounts were borrowed but unfortunately the Council’s enterprise was not a success.  Smile

Local manufacturers and tradesmen complained of delays, blackouts and of very steep increases in the Council’s charges. “I suppose when you have borrowed all that money, (£24,000) you got to get it back somehow huh?”

By 1918 the total net loss shown on the Council’s balance sheet was nearly £6,000.  At this point the Wednesbury Council lost it’s enthusiasm for a municipal supply and distribution of its own electricity.

In April of that year the undertaking was sold to the Midland Electric Corporation for £75,000 and the money had to be used as repayment of the debts incurred by the Wednesbury Council’s venture.

Real Poverty


“My first thought when reading about the introduction of electricity, was 2Oh how exciting that must have been for the people of Wednesbury,  At last they would be able to read, sew, and go through everyday life with light. Something we simply take for granted, would be for them, a marvel! “

How very stupid of me, because I have been learning and writing about the poverty in Wednesbury, almost daily, for almost a tear, so I should have known better.”

Between 1875 and 1914 there was chronic poverty in Wednesbury. There were periods of industrial depression and strikes which caused the most acute distress, even deaths from sheer starvation were not unknown.  With many families seeking “poor relief” during their suffering, so it is obvious that the new fangled electricity supply was of little concern to them, and what did they care who supplied it! They, of course, had little power to help themselves in their difficult circumstances, and the last thing they wanted was to have them illuminated by electric light.  Many hadn’t enough money to feed themselves, let alone pay for electricity.

And then again, at the beginning of the 1930’s many people living in Wednesbury were seeing poverty, with some once again struggling hard to keep the families fed.

“This of course was because steel had fallen victim to the export trade, causing apathy in the town, and 3,800 men to be unemployed.”

Yet again Wednesbury Council considered whether it should itself invest in the undertaking of the supply and distribution of electricity, as they opposed the inclusion of their area, with the Midland Electric Corporation. However, the nationalisation in the 1940’s of electricity services removed any further question of municipalisation as an aim for Wednesbury.

war save fuel          watts per bulb

During W.W.II the Ministry of Fuel and Power issued advice leaflets, one of them was, “Save Fuel for Battle and Industry” to encourage people to use much less fuel of every kind.  Even in women’s magazines they tried to question the already deprived housewife, “How much electricity do you use?”

As the bombing went on, it became a matter of pride to “do one’s bit” and “switch off.”  By illustrating everyday appliances with the number of units they used, and quoting a price of one penny per unit, it was a way of persuading women to contribute to the war effort. Regardless of their efforts during wartime, the worse was yet to come as within a few weeks of nationalisation a severe crisis occurred.

In the summer and autumn of 1946, most people who lived in Wednesbury, (and surrounding areas) made sure the coal house was full of the black stuff.  This was because the Ministry of Fuel and Power had received several warnings that coal stocks at power stations were perilously low.

And then to top it off, the weather in January 1947 was exceptional severe, and the supplying of coal to the power stations was brought to a halt. And on February 7th,  it was announced that they were running out of coal stocks.

And as from the following Monday there would be “no electricity at all” for industrial users in some areas, and consumers would be forbidden to switch on electric heaters for three hours each morning and two each afternoon.

Four weeks of power cuts followed. However, as I said before, most folk had been hording away the coal in their coal house. So as it snowed outside, some shrewd coal hoarders were sat by a roaring fire, and that, plus candles, was also their light for awhile.

“I wasn’t born till 1960, so I never lived through that time of hardship, but I do know that my parents were always prepared. There was always candles placed around the house with matches never far away. Because the 70’s was the decade of strikes and electricity shortages. Not to mention the piles of rotting rubbish on the street.

Gas Burners


 st lamp market place

A triple gas standard lamp can be seen in the centre of the market place (photo on left)

overhead cablesAnd a single gas street light on the island at Walsall Road, on this postcard on the right,  published around 1915; although a change to electricity had begun on January 1st 1893, when overhead transmission for electric trams which were to replace steam trams
As early as June 1853, gas lighting had been introduced in a few streets of the town and by the end of 1895 the Council had installed incandescent burners which gave better illumination.When the subject of electric street lighting was raised at a meeting in 1901 it was decided no action should be taken.

After WW2 Wednesbury enjoyed full employment making the town prosperous. The photograph above showing the town in the 50’s was a good time, the Town was flourishing, successful and thriving.

The Wednesbury Council had said:

Let there be light,”

And soon giant concrete electric light standard lamps were flooding the market place,

with much needed electric illumination.


gas lamp era

This picture shows Wednesbury in the gas lamp era, these were the early days of gas and electricity supply.
Kelly’s Directory of 1900 says that Wednesbury was supplied with gas by the Corporation of Birmingham, and an overhead electric tramway, the property of the South Staffordshire Tramway Co
Regarding the market itself, Kelly’s Directory also says that, in 1900, this was held on a Friday:
“And is well supplied with provisions and vegetables, and there is also a market on Saturday”.
It also adds, “Fairs are held on May 6th and August 3rd, chiefly for pedlery”.

reading lamp gas                   advert cooker                       ad creda


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